Student Conservation Association Opens Doors to the Outdoors for Young Women

    June 17, 2019
    by Rafael Rosa

    As a longtime proponent of diversity, inclusivity, and equity in the conservation field, the Student Conservation Association (SCA) might not be expected to intentionally exclude a major demographic group from its programs. However, after five years of conducting female-only crews in the City of Chicago, SCA is ready to call this field experiment a success.

    Since 2013, an SCA team typically comprised of eight area women between the ages of 18 and 25, plus two experienced team leaders and two apprentice leaders, has taken on invasive species management and eroding trails at Chicagoland sites such as Hegewisch Marsh, Indian Ridge Marsh, and the Burnham Wildlife Corridor. But most of all, the crew has tackled outdated notions of gendered roles in the still male-dominated domain of environmental conservation.

    “For young women,” states SCA Program Manager Daiva Gylys, “green jobs can be something of a mystery and opportunities to train for them are even more so. But that doesn’t mean women are any less interested than men.”

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall number of females in conservation positions doesn’t begin to approach their proportion in the population at large. Only a third of environmental scientists are women (and 90% of them are White); 24% of forestry, fishing, and farming occupations are filled by females, and just 8% of landscapers are women.

    That’s precisely why SCA initiated its all-female crews: to create a unique environment in which women of all colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds could gain both the experience and certifications typically needed to launch a career in parks management, horticulture, and other related fields.

    Although the early female teams were scheduled to work only during the summer, the crews were so effective that the Chicago Park District and other funders like BP America agreed to extend their terms to six months. Last year’s group planted or propagated 15,000 native plant plugs, built or refurbished nearly 100,000 feet of trail, and improved 1,200 feet of waterfront, while acquiring chainsaw, prescribed burn, urban forestry, and First Aid/CPR certifications. The program also included various environmental education components.

    “Although I have a degree in environmental studies and have completed environmental internships with other organizations, I feel as though I have learned more technical, practical, and life skills with SCA than any other job experience,” states Nora Hardy of the city’s Mayfair neighborhood. “SCA was my first completely out-of-office field experience, and it pushed me to become comfortable working with a large group of people in physically challenging, unfamiliar scenarios.”

    Added crewmate Maddie Peacher: “Working with the all-women SCA crew empowered me and allowed me to grow and gain conservation skills in a comfortable setting. I now feel that I am prepared to successfully pursue a career in the conservation field.”

    Would these advancements have occurred if men participated on the crew? Perhaps not, says Daiva Gylys, the SCA program manager. She notes on coed teams it is difficult to avoid even unintended gender bias. “For example,” she says, “when strength is needed, the young men are more apt to jump in and say ‘I got this.’

    “The all-female crews are machismo-free. Everyone is more or less on equal footing. There are no gender roles and the women have proven they can handle things – anything – on their own.”

    SCA conducts scores of coed teams around the country in addition to the thousands of young adults it places in individual internships each year, and surveys show that 70% of SCA alumni are employed or studying in the conservation field. That’s a broad realm, however, ranging from archaeology to zoology. The women on SCA’s all-female crew practice hands-on natural resource management with an eye toward turning that experience into employment – and this program delivers. 

    Every one of last year’s crewmembers has since secured a full-time position. One is an environmental restoration technician, another works in lake and watershed management, and another in organic sustainable farming. Bethany Ketchem, a 23-year old Northwestern University grad, landed her dream job, joining a U.S. Forest Service strike team at Allegheny National Forest. “I’d heard you usually need to take a seasonal position before getting hired full time, so I feel pretty lucky,” Bethany says. 

    “After I graduated, I applied for, like, 50 Forest Service jobs but was told I didn’t have the necessary experience. Then I heard about the SCA Chicago women’s crew and it seemed focused on getting really valuable skills, with heavy manual labor and intense machinery – things normally associated with men and masculinity. It was empowering and affirming.”

    Bethany believes her six months with SCA “sealed the deal” with the Forest Service, and
    she now travels from western Pennsylvania to New England as part of a team of professionals inventorying trees and gathering data on species, size, and density.

    “There’s a place for women in conservation,” she states, “and this job allows me to do something fun, closer to my passion. It’s important and rewarding to feel like you’re making a difference.”

    This year, SCA will field two all-women crews. The first started in Chicago in late April and will continue into November; the second, funded with a National Parks Foundation grant, begins work in the fall at nearby Indiana Dunes National Seashore.

    As program participants continue to secure employment in what previously had been considered “male jobs,” interest in introducing the all-female teams to other urban markets is growing. In each case, the focus will remain on experiential learning in trail maintenance, invasive species management, native species propagation – and opening doors to the outdoors for young women.  

    Rafael Rosa directs SCA’s program operations, strategy, and staff. From 2014 to 2016, Rosa served as Regional Vice President for Partnerships for SCA’s Central Region. He brings to SCA more than 25 years of museum education experience at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, most recently as Vice President of Education. In 2012, a program Rafael developed with community partners, Using Cultural Symbols to Introduce Monarch Conservation and Nature-Based Activities in Chicago, received the Urban Communities in Conservation Award from the US Department of Agriculture.

    A strong believer in the value of partnership and collaboration, Rosa chaired the Museums in the Park Education Committee and co-chaired the Chicago Wilderness Education Organizing Committee. He has served on the Navy Pier Environmental Working Group, Illinois Statewide High Quality Teacher Professional Development Task Force and his local Board of Education. He is a member of the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Environmental Education Association of Illinois and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Rosa holds a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.


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